Producer Gary Scott Thompson on the New Knight Rider
Gary Scott Thompson on Knight Rider
Knight Rider producer Gary Scott Thompson is putting the pedal to the metal. A guilty pleasure over four seasons in the 80’s and subsequent specials throughout the years, the Knight Rider television series found former police detective Michael Knight and his astonishing sentient car Kitt traveling across the United States fighting crime. Earlier in 2008, NBC once again revived the concept with a two hour back door pilot and a younger lead. Despite some bumps in the road and criticism from viewers, a new series was greenlighted to premiere on September 24. Not originally involved with the TV movie, Thompson has now taken over the driver’s seat with plans to reenergize the material and move full speed ahead.“I came on board because I had a deal with NBC Universal and they said ‘We are cancelling your show [Las Vegas] and putting you on something else. We want you to look at this,’” recalls Thompson. “That was one of the ways but that is really not why. I looked at it and found something interesting. I was a fan of the original so can I help this or make it better? I felt I could improve on the TV movie and had similar complaints that most of the fans and critics did. Granted there was a strike on, and I understand all that, but I came in as an outside observer, much the same way any viewer would. When it aired, the biggest thing for me was when one of my kids who was watching it with me said ‘Big deal. Our car can talk too.’ He was absolutely right. When the show aired in the early 80’s, it was a big deal and the coolest thing in the world. So I said to him ‘You are absolutely right. Our car can talk.’ We talk back to it, we name our GPS, and there is OnStar which talks to you. It was interesting because it was from an 11-year-old’s perspective of this not being cool and that started me thinking ‘Yes, your car can talk, but can it do this?’ That line is actually in the first episode so the idea of turning the car from one thing to another in certain situations was the really cool thing.” A meeting with NBC to share Thompson’s thoughts on a Knight Rider series cinched the deal.
“I pitched what the show should be and they were like ‘Great. When can you start?’” explains Thompson. “I made them promise they won’t do what they did in the two hour TV movie because the audience won’t sit still for it. The movie was too slow paced and wasn’t technologically advanced enough considering where we are today. It really felt like a throwback to the original series. I really didn’t want to do that because the audience is way too sophisticated and they’ve seen Transformers, Iron Man, The Batman movies, and the Bourne movies so unless we are on par with those, they aren’t going to watch. So far, from the reaction at Comic-Con and in movie theatres when they’ve seen this car, it gets huge applause and cheers.” “My other idea was really to try and bring a feature mentality to a TV show which is to do an on-the-edge of your seat action packed show once a week in prime time TV,” continues Thompson. “Now whether we can pull it off every week, I’m not sure but the first episode has over 700 visual effects in it and that is more than a feature has. It’s a massive undertaking but the plus side is once you do it, you learn how to do it, how to do it quickly, and be more cost effective. The initial phase is the tough part but we really just went flat out balls-to-the-walls. We want to entertain, have fun, to be up to date, be technologically advanced, and make a popcorn movie where it’s one hell of a wild ride for one hour every week. Hopefully, people will tune in to see what happens next and what kind of crazy stuff these guys get into.” Thompson admits one big hurdle has been people who loved the 80’s series and hated the recent TV movie, or vice versa, already have a preconceived notion of what Knight Rider is. “The funny thing is we went to the Television Critics Association and the critics already had a preconceived notion,” says Thompson. “They looked at us and said ‘We already saw the two hour so this is going to blow.’ I am like ‘Give us a chance! We haven’t even aired! You don’t know what we are doing! We are revamping the series. It is going to be different!’ Then I go to Comic Con the same week and the fans were excited to see what we were going to do. When we asked for them to give us a shot, it was like ‘Absolutely! We’ll be there!’ We showed them the four minute clip and they went crazy. One of the last questions was whether they could see it again. I don’t fault the critics but unless it’s up there as an Emmy winner…… Well, that’s not my objective. My objective is to bring eyeballs and get people to watch.” Rather than do a complete overhaul, Knight Rider is keeping the key elements intact while still giving it a fresh coat of paint. “Well, Michael Knight is the same actor from the two hour,” reveals Thompson. “I brought over a few actors such as Bruce Davison and Justin Bruening. The interesting thing is there was some mythology brought from that TV movie and some I pulled in from the original show. The character’s name is Michal Traceur in the two hour and part of the first episode but for me, you can’t have a Knight Rider without a Michael Knight. He is the son of the original Knight and by the end, you will see exactly what he has done to transform himself. He has a past which was touched on and is now being embellished. He was an Iraqi War veteran and some of what he did he’s not proud of. There is a whole mystery there that we are going to unravel in season one. There is also three new characters. There is a base of operations which is part of Knight Industries’ Research and Development. That is our primary set which is where the car drives into it, goes upon a gimbal, spins around, and flips upside down. Michael is part of a larger team here that helps on these missions. It’s not just one man out there by himself because you are talking about a multi billion dollar asset so you aren’t going to turn that over to one guy without a support group.” As equally important as Michael, and the main hook of the series, is Kitt, the extraordinary car that is loaded with impressive James Bond type gadgets and a mind of its own. However, Kitt seemed void of any personality or smart alec quips in the pilot. “It’s interesting because that was one of the first things I thought was the car just sounds like a computer which isn’t very interesting,” agrees Thompson. “I don’t know if some fans didn’t like Val Kilmer’s voice or they wanted William Daniels back. That is the problem; you can never please everyone. I remember when they changed the Batmobile, people went nuts and then they become accepting of it. That is the thing about the internet is it also gives everyone a voice which is the greatest thing in the world. The bad thing is it gives everyone a voice.” “The biggest thing we are doing the first year of this show is Kitt’s learning process,” he continues. “As he learns, he is going to develop more of a sense of humor and all that stuff. Each episode is geared towards some sort of lesson but as much as Kitt learns from our humans, they are learning from him. Kitt is an artificial being which means he has no emotions. A big part of season one is going to be why Kitt is here with this group, why is he learning, and why is an artificial intelligence in this car. There is a bigger mythology to it and what I wanted to do was bring some from the original and update it. It’s been 25 years since Knight Industries was seen so what’s happened to them and where have they gone?” Another important feature that was notably absent from the recent version was Kitt’s signature super charged turbo boost that allowed him to reach incredible speeds instantaneously. “That was one of the coolest things about the original and also something I as a viewer went ‘Where is the turbo booster?’” notes Thompson. “It’s the anticipation of when he goes ‘Turbo boost,’ pushes the red button, and Kitt goes flying through the air. As an effect that was awesome for its day. Now it’s not so cool. You go ‘Okay, now he’s flying through the same truck over and over again.’ However, it is one of the nostalgic pieces people remember and want to see. It’s like ‘What is the new version of the Batmobile?’ You want to see what the updates are in the first five minutes of the show.” A car like Kitt only comes around once in a lifetime so a lingering question will be whatever happened to the original? “In the two hour, you did see bits and pieces of it,” reports Thompson. “We’re leaving that right now because there is an opportunity with David Hasselhoff returning at some point. We’ve discussed it and are discussing it. I don’t know if it’s going to happen just because of scheduling. It’s something we are actually talking about so if we did do it, that would be the point I would want to bring Kitt back.” To further contemporize Knight Rider and raise the stakes, Michael will be facing such headline worthy dangers as terrorism, anarchists, and stolen hi-tech material. “Those old missions can be really dated!” chuckles Thompson. “The nostalgia isn’t just for the show itself but for that time period in their lives. You are 8-years-old, sitting there next to Dad, it’s your weekly show you watch together, and you have a great time. Everyone forgets about that part of it and they go ‘Hey, this new show isn’t like my old one.’ I always want to tell them to go back and look at it to see if the episodes hold up. A lot of them really don’t hold up and do need to be updated because of the sophistication of our audience and there are generations who didn’t see it. Again, when I was watching the first season before I started writing anything, my kids were there going ‘Are you going to watch this the entire day? Oh my God! I am going to die!’ You would have thought I was pulling their toe nails out with a pair of pliers! They were in agony sitting through it because it is not the speed they are used to. They are computer and cell phone savvy. That is why there is a whole touch screen on Kitt’s windshield, like in the movie A.I., where you can move things around or download information.” Whether all these upgrades allow Knight Rider to run over the competition this fall remains to be seen. However, as the writer of the films The Fast and the Furious as well as its sequel, an adrenalized series full of action and cars definitely seems to play to Thompson’s strengths. “One of the things I learned from those is the faster the better,” smiles Thompson. “We are a car savvy nation where we love our cars. We also spend a lot of time in our car and in some ways, this has a wish fulfillment element. Everybody wishes they had a car that could drive itself or transform so you could sleep and Kitt can do that. The biggest thing is to really keep moving. If you are going to do a show about a car, you need to go fast. The cars need to be really cool and have amazing stunts and races. The other is you need really cool characters driving them. When people talk about The Fast and the Furious, they talk about the cars but they also talk a lot about the characters. That is why when they made the toys, they included a figure of the character because they were just as important. What I am also really trying to do is use the technology that is available in the feature world and apply it here. Unfortunately, features get tens of hundreds of millions of dollars to produce and promote and we get nothing compared to that. To try and do it on a shoe string budget has been a huge challenge. As I mentioned, there is 700 visual effects shots in the first episode and that doesn’t even include the car stunts which are mostly practical.”